2014 was the worst year ever for Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) in Ontario (though our numbers still pale in comparison to more endemic areas in the southern US, such as Florida). A recent article published in the Animal Health Lab (AHL) Newletter (December 2014) by Dr. Alison Moore from OMAFRA sums things up well:
"Twenty-two horses and 2 emus in the province died or were euthanized due to the disease with potentially as many deaths being suspected by attending veterinarians. Two horses were confirmed infected but survived. Counties in Eastern Ontario suffered the greatest casualties. Diagnosis in 21 horses was by serum IgM ELISA testing and 3 were diagnosed by RT-PCR on brain tissue. The affected horses were diagnosed between the end of July and the end of October. Ages of affected horses ranged from 2-20+ years, with no breed or sex predilection. Most of the infected horses were unvaccinated backyard horses and only a single horse per property was clinically affected. Most horses had an acute onset of disease with death or euthanasia performed within 24-48 hours. Common clinical signs included ataxia progressing to recumbency, with fever noted in some and blindness and head pressing noted in others. In the 2 horses that survived, the clinical signs were mild (ataxia and lethargy). The 2 emus were diagnosed with hemorrhagic enteritis and EEEV confirmed in the intestine and liver by RT-PCR.
The virus causing EEE is transmitted by mosquitoes. In Ontario, the most important species is Culiseta melanura, which feeds on birds. Bridge vectors, mosquitoes that feed on both birds and mammals, then complete the cycle to humans and horses. Outbreaks occur in hardwood, flooded areas with competent avian reservoirs and mammals present. Horses and humans are dead-end hosts as they do not produce sufficient viremia to infect mosquitoes.
So why was 2014 such a devastating year? Some speculate that eastern Ontario was relatively warmer this year than other parts of the province, others say it was due to the amount of spring precipitation. Others implicate the spring migration of wading birds such as herons from Florida. Herons are a preferred host for Culiseta sp. over winter in Florida, a major reservoir state for EEEV. The spring migration of herons and similar birds is thought to disseminate the virus to the northern USA and Canada. OMAFRA and Public Health Ontario will be working together over the winter to determine any associations between ecological and meteorological factors and disease occurrence."
Given the amount of activity we saw with this virus this past summer, vaccination of horses against EEE (particularly in hard-hit areas) will be important come spring to help avoid a repeat of this year’s outbreak.
More information about the occurrence of EEE and other equine neurologic diseases in Ontario is available on the OMAFRA website: Equine Neurological Disease Surveillance 2014.